Ebb and Flow: Dye plants to fix what ails you?

Setting up dye samples. The mineral content and pH of water can have huge effects on the color of a dye. 

Setting up dye samples. The mineral content and pH of water can have huge effects on the color of a dye. 

When you pour your everything into a new part of your life, you have to stop after a while and catch your breath. A few weeks back, our family laundry had started to look like those menacing piles of leaves in Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. The kids were losing noodles left and right. My ability to find and book classes had evaporated.  I needed a retreat. (Thankfully, I am not in this alone! L & R to the rescue...) 

I thought you might find it interesting to hear about where I've been wandering on this mini mental vacation ... 

I've been working up a new set of dye samples using traditional plant dyes and Ithaca water. I was on the hunt for a couple of things that I can't get from my usual source, which I thought might also make for good classes. I headed to the co-op, to see if they carried these plant materials in bulk.

While there, I ran into a friend in front of the herbs. Unfortunately, the dye materials were not available in the bulk section. But this friend, of all the convenient things she could do, studies traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. An hour later, I walked out of the co-op, dyes on order and a plan in mind. 

You see, a lot of plants have traditionally had more than one use. Dye plants and medicinal plants are frequently aromatic. It so happens that the molecules that make color often are (or come alongside) biologically active molecules that can be used to treat ailments. . I am speaking loosely, in very broad terms  -- and here are some interesting examples. Don't try this at home, folks. Many of these plants are toxic if you don't use them exactly the right way. 

Pokeweed on wool/silk yarn, before washing.

Pokeweed on wool/silk yarn, before washing.

Pokeweed (red) has been used to treat breast lumps (its seeds, roots, and leaves are also toxic, and the fruit only slightly less active). Calendula (yellow) is extracted into an oil to heal skin. Certain preparations of madder (orange, red, brown) can help prevent kidney stones. Another herbalist friend has used parts of the indigo plant (blue) to treat a diaper rash that was resistant to all other creams and ointments that the poor desperate mama had applied. 

As I listed the plants I was looking for, my herbalist friend kept saying oh! That's such and such, and you use it to balance cold and hot. Or Oh! that one is for cooling off the kind of heat that comes with viral infections -- not fevers, but irritations. Then I ran into someone else who knows a lot about North American medicinal plants, and she got excited when I told her what we were chatting about.

A week later, I've spent hours chasing down references and looking up Latin names of plants and their broad dye and medicinal uses. I can confirm that many traditional dye plants, from all over the world, are also used to treat aches and pains. Many are being investigated by pharmaceutical companies as sources of drugs. 

My friends and I will be getting together to explore and play with these ideas. Who knows what will come of it -- a fun evening? an exhibit? a class? -- But this exploration is filing my batteries back up. 

x Erika

P.S. It will also entertain some of you to know that in the past few months, I have purchased dyes or dye equipment not just from my dye supplier and my herbalist friend, but also from thrift stores, grocery stores, two different biodiesel people, the kitchen supply store, and a hydroponics and brewing supply store. This is not including the stuff I have collected in the yard. You have to be creative!